How challenging will the course load be? Is the environment too cutthroat? Will I be homesick?
These are all questions that most incoming undergrads ask themselves at the start of their college career. Luckily, for me, these concerns were soon washed away as I grew used to WashU. What I didn’t consider, though, was my literal place at Olin—more specifically, in a business environment.
I am someone who has always been proud of my identity and background. Never did I expect myself to question this pride, especially when it came to my education. Yet, there I was, struggling to find others who looked like me (a gay Latino) and who came from the same roots (as a first-generation student).
My public-school education prepared me well-enough, and I’ll always be thankful for that. In no way did I have the resources that so many others had under their belt. For example, I didn’t have the somewhat-expected business connections that so many others took advantage of in their career search. I felt myself being ashamed to admit that my family owned a small Mexican restaurant; this was not “professional” in my eyes (whatever that meant). I didn’t even own a suit. Shoot, the only business class I had taken was a financial literacy class. What on earth was consulting? And why was I the only one asking?
I felt like I didn’t belong, like I was just a token—as if I wasn’t living up to the expectation as this type of successful minority student. Did I take someone else’s spot – someone who deserved it more than me? As more and more questions began to build upon each other, I began to focus less on my academics and college experience and more on my individual flaws. Needless to say, my first semester as a business undergrad was not smooth in any way.
I even highly considered dropping out.
In the end, I’m lucky to say that I’m still here and have moved past this negative mindset. But none of that would have been possible if I didn’t first accept what I was feeling: imposter syndrome.
FEELIN’ LIKE A FRAUD
What is imposter syndrome? The American Psychological Association defines it as a phenomenon that “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.” These individuals will instead attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability and are furthermore afraid that somebody will “unmask” them as a fraud.
How many people experience this feeling? Believe it or not, more than you’d think. In fact, studies show that an estimated 70% of people will experience these imposter feelings at some point in their lives. College is a prime spot where the phenomenon emerges. Not surprisingly, this statistic is even more common in a business school setting.
Whether it be comparing internship offers or the prestige of different fields, many topics can trigger imposter syndrome for business-concentrated undergrads. This type of competitive environment isn’t just unhealthy but also rooted in privilege that isn’t readily available for individuals coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
As alluded to in my own experiences, it can even make you question your identity and a sense of belonging. In fact, the experience seems to be more common among minorities. It stems from the fact that business is embodied by a white, heteronormative space where everyone is encouraged to “dress professionally” (i.e. “don’t dress too brightly”, “don’t act too flamboyantly”, or “don’t wear your hair like that”). Most of the time, these pieces of advice are intertwined with microaggressions. As someone who’s struggled with my own perception, especially when it came to my identity as LGBTQ+, it by no means helped when I was told that I should be more aware of how I use my hand gestures when I’m speaking.
Many people (including those who experience it) will still play off imposter syndrome as something unimportant and minute. Unfortunately, these “impostor feeling are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression”, making it a serious mental health concern.
WHAT YOU CAN DO AND HOW YOUR SCHOOL CAN SUPPORT YOU
Most business school practices are by no means meant to be harmful. However, it still can create this high-pressure space where everyone is expected to already know the ropes. In no way am I intending for this piece to be about me or Olin in particular. Rather, it is a call to address this issue and provide next steps in how to combat it.
Thankfully, there exists many ways to fight this feeling of phoniness.
A 2018 Time article provides some of these healthy mechanisms, including acknowledging your perspectives and reframing these negative thoughts, as well as sharing your concerns with trusted friends or mentors. One of my own favorite exercises is keeping a journal that highlights a few daily or weekly “wins”. The healthiest thing I did, however, was making it a priority to stop comparing myself to my peers over every little variable. Instead, I focused in on my own worth.
Nevertheless, in many cases, it’s more than just a personal dilemma and actually derives from an institutional issue. This is especially true for students of color who feel isolated due to feelings that they can only experience.
In order to get concrete examples of how business schools are addressing this issue, I spoke with Paige LaRose, the Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Programs at Olin Business School.
“We have a community of students who celebrates others’ successes,” said Dean LaRose about Olin’s student-to-student culture. “At the end of the day, it’s this sentiment of ‘when my friends are successful, that’s a success for me’”.
During our conversation, Dean LaRose also wasn’t hesitant in accepting that business schools should be providing resources and support for all their students and need to build from their past mistakes. She reflected, “I think it’s really imperative, and it’s on us as a program to have ways for students to be connected with upperclassmen and faculty, so they have easy access to explore options in business. And as the university strives to be more diverse, I think it’s important that we continue to press ourselves and create more options for students.”
Some of these options that LaRose and the Olin administration have recently implemented in the last 5-6 years include various affinity groups and D&I organizations spearheaded by students. For example, there is OWN IT, a professional summit held in November to inspire young businesswomen, as well as the Society of Hispanic Business Professionals, the China Business Association, an LGBTQ+ club called Proud Network, and many more. These allow students from various backgrounds to connect with others similar to themselves, both in a personal and professional sense.
To address the socioeconomic side of things, LaRose also brought up how the school makes it a priority to widely market its Olin Educational Opportunity Fund, which provides students with financial support for business-oriented activates, ranging from buying a new suit for a case competition to even completely funding a career trek to New York City.
As someone who is heavily involved with these D&I groups and relies on the Opportunity Fund, these were two major resources that made me feel more comfortable in this space. Without these resources, I’m not sure that I would still be pursuing a degree in business today.
And while LaRose knows that Olin and all business schools still have a long way to go, she’s confident that these young student-professionals will be pivotal in continuing this progress.
To close out our chat, LaRose gave the following advice: “Find peer mentors—upperclassmen that you can share your experiences with. This could be your RA or someone who’s in the same club as you. Have that conversation with someone you know who will listen. Know what you’re feeling, because what you’re experiencing, I promise you, is normal.”
I am a senior in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in Marketing and minoring in Spanish and the Business of Entertainment. I live about a half hour away from the Lou in Collinsville, IL a.k.a. “the home to the world’s largest ketchup bottle”! I plan on pursuing a career in marketing research and strategy, specifically in entertainment where I hope to improve accurate representation in television. I like to spend my free time reading, riding bike trails, binging TV series, hiking, adventuring with friends, and enjoying the occasional margarita at my family’s Mexican restaurant. I’m always open to new book or TV recommendations!